Like many people when they first come to China, when I arrived in 1999 I was optimistic and excited about the dynamic changes the country was going through. It felt like the beginning of the beginning; I was going to be part of something.

I have heard this sentiment expressed innumerable times by other expats in China. It's what keeps us here. We know that any minute now, the moment we've all been waiting for, the unarticulated big change, will occur, or at least start to take shape. We go through cycles of hope and then disappointment and disillusionment when we realise, again, that this time it didn't happen.

It seems many expats suffer from a kind of willful blindness which fuels their optimism for a while but cannot be sustained. For some, this takes a few years (of course those on government postings don't get much say); for others, it can take decades. For most it seems that at about the seven or eight year mark, getting out of China is an inevitability. I have now left China after around eight years.

When I first arrived in Beijing in 1999, I got off the plane and before catching the slow train to Tianjin, went to the bathroom at the airport. It looked pretty standard: a row of wash-basins against one wall and a long wall of cubicles along the opposite wall. I opened the door to one empty cubicle and was surprised to find that although there were eight or so separate doors, each one opened into a single long space, with no walls between each of the squat toilets. The women already in there looked up at me with curiosity. What seemed familiar at first glance was in fact entirely different just behind the doors.

I came to think of this moment as something of a metaphor to help me understand my life in China. Despite appearing familiar in many ways, understanding what China is, and how Chinese people think and act, cannot be done by reading people, events, or politics through our own pre-existing categories.

China has of course many obvious differences from 'the Western world' in which foreign tourists and their cameras can delight. Old men with crinkled faces take their birds for walks in parks. Babies wear split-bottomed pants so they can go to the toilet anywhere, anytime. Restaurant menus really do feature frogs intestines and ducks tongues. But these obvious markers of cultural uniqueness distract from what is really important to remember about China, which is that what looks familiar can be an important signal of what is actually incomprehensible, at least as long as we keep using external analytics to try to understand.

From a visitor's point of view, cities like Shanghai and Beijing seem recognisably modern. There are roads, traffic lights, shiny tall buildings, cafes, and sophisticated people who do not look 'communist' shopping in malls and talking on mobile phones. Of course visitors understand the need for 'cross-cultural communication' — we know we must be alert to proper seating arrangements during business dinners at round banquet tables, we mustn't squirm when offered dog or pig testicles, and we should never stick out chopsticks straight into our rice. We appreciate that this is how Chinese people do business and show hospitality.

We tend to presume that underneath the surface-level differences, Chinese people are more or less the same as us. The reading of surface-level signs according to our own norms, like the apparently Western toilets at Beijing airport in 1999, also occurs when we try and explain and interpret Chinese politics and behaviour. One example is the way political structures and activities are described. Xi Jinping is described as 'the President', so we ascribe to him the same roles and responsibilities as Barack Obama. Li Keqiang is the 'Prime Minister', the State Council is China's cabinet, and so on. This translation and simplification, a bid to understand how China works, ultimately impairs our ability to see it for how it is, rather than just another version of how we are.

When I talk to expats who want to leave, they cannot precisely pinpoint why. Often it is a general sense of malaise, lost hope, tiredness and disappointment. The new leadership under Xi boosted their optimism for a while. Xi seems so human and charismatic, with an elegant wife who accompanies him to things — far more familiar and comprehensible than Hu Jintao's Weekend at Bernie's style. People wondered whether this might be the beginning of the beginning. Would we at last see the dynamism released that we knew was just under the surface? Would the highly publicised anti-corruption campaign mean genuine political reform?

No. What we have seen instead under Xi s a tightening of power and authority, albeit in sophisticated and highly modern ways. Censorship is certainly not loosening, and many of the Chinese people I speak to think this is a good thing, if sometimes a bit annoying. Xi has taken hold of more elements of power than anyone since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao Zedong. The Chinese state is not rolling back from people's lives, and even the exciting news that the market will be allowed to play a greater role should not be misunderstood. Private enterprises are still tightly entwined in the party-state structure, with a view to being even more so in the future. The Chinese model of power is nothing if not adaptable and pragmatic. 

That is not to say that expats are giving up because the state hasn't been overthrown; many expats wonder if there isn't something to be said for how things are done in China. It seems to suit China. But after a certain amount of time, people who haven't been socialised in that system find it simply too strange, too alien. Ultimately, the fact that it looks kind of familiar just makes the discomfort more acute.

I should note of course that this is all an outsider's perspective, and may not reflect the average Chinese person's point of view. Many rural poor are far more optimistic. They have seen their lives improved greatly over the past three decades. The growing urban middle class is also fairly content. The extremely poor and the extremely wealthy are, perhaps, a little more circumspect — there must be some reason the elite are scrambling to put their wealth overseas, and arrange for citizenship and passports from Western countries.

But on the whole, the Chinese population does not seem dissatisfied enough to contemplate overthrowing the system. So it would be a good idea for us to try to really understand it.

Photo by Flickr user Chrls.